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After seven years, Alaska Legislature considers no longer monitoring veterinarians’ opioid prescriptions


After seven years, Alaska Legislature considers no longer monitoring veterinarians’ opioid prescriptions

Mar 23, 2023 | 9:54 pm ET
By James Brooks
After seven years, Alaska Legislature considers no longer monitoring veterinarians’ opioid prescriptions
Rep. Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna, is seen on Feb. 8, 2023, in the Alaska House of Representatives at Juneau. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Seven years ago, at the urging of then-Gov. Bill Walker, the Alaska Legislature passed a sweeping bill intended to limit the abuse of prescription opioid drugs. 

Now, lawmakers are preparing to repeal a portion of that bill at the request of state veterinarians who say the bill went too far. 

The veterinarians are asking to be exempted from the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program. That statewide database includes the names of Alaskans who receive prescription drugs, and it keeps track of what they’ve been prescribed in order to deter drug abuse.

Because there’s no way to track animals separately from humans, it creates an odd situation: A veterinarian prescribing painkillers for a dog has to look up its owner’s medical records, including their prescription history. 

“There is a privacy issue with veterinarians viewing this information,” said Dr. Tracy Ward, a past president of the Alaska State Veterinary Medical Association, at a Monday meeting of the House Labor and Commerce Committee.

The committee, along with its counterpart in the Senate, is considering legislation that would put the veterinarians’ suggestion into law and exempt them from mandatory state reporting. 

Veterinarians rarely prescribe opioid drugs, say advocates for the bill, and Alaska isn’t alone in considering a rollback: 10 states used to mandate that veterinarians participate in their prescription monitoring program, but they’ve since reversed themselves.

Rolling back the law wouldn’t leave veterinarians unregulated; those who prescribe opioid drugs are already monitored by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency.

Until this year, the deregulation move was opposed by the Alaska State Medical Association and other medical groups, in part because of fear that veterinarians could be a source of opioid abuse.

“Opioid prescriptions from veterinarians are a contribution to the presence and availability of opioids in our communities,” the Alaska chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians testified last year.

But data show that veterinarians are responsible for only one-third of 1% of opioid prescriptions, and this year, the medical association reversed its position and now backs the bill.

“While we still have concerns over illegal prescription drug use,” the association said in a letter, “it is clear that the current PDMP does not work for veterinarians and there isn’t currently a path forward to alter the PDMP to mitigate the impacts of its use by veterinarians.”

“I think that’s a major shift in a lot of the conversations that are happening,” said Rep. Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna.

Ruffridge is a pharmacist when he’s not serving as a legislator, and he’s the sponsor of the rollback bill in the House.

“I think that this is a little bit of a correction back to a more reasonable position,” he said.

Ruffridge’s bill is scheduled for a hearing on Friday afternoon in the House Labor and Commerce Committee. If it passes that committee, its next stop will be a vote of the full House.